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Big Design 2012: Lessons in Accessible, Empathetic Design

Big Design Conference Geek Cowboy BootI had the pleasure of attending the Big Design conference again this year. The theme that emerged for me was accessibility, both for several insightful sessions on the topic and for the effort that the conference organizers put into making this excellent regional conference as accessible as possible. For the latter, kudos to Brian Sullivan and his conference team as well as to Google, the accessibility sponsor for the conference, for their work to make Big Design a great experience for all attendees. Even as a hearing attendee, I and my notes benefitted from the amazing skills of the CART provider, the first time I’ve seen such a service at any conference I’ve attended.
The opening keynote by Sharron Rush “The Big Umbrella of Accessibility” kicked off the sessions on accessible design. The focus with accessibility for most companies continues to be compliance with laws such as the Americans with Disability Act and Section 508 but Rush asserted that accessible design should be about “great experiences for everyone.” She noted that good design can change thinking about special needs, sharing how the accomplishments of people such as Oscar Pistorius and Aimee Mullins have forced people to rethink disabilities.
Rush challenged designers to rethink accessible design. She quoted John Slatin, “Good design is accessible design.” She shared how good design had turned previously stigmatized items such as eyeglasses into fashion and how Apple’s accepting accessibility as a design goal resulted in making it a “leader in making its products accessible.” Rush concluded, “When accessibility is a design challenge rather than a mandate, it just changes the way you think about your work.”
In “Beyond Captions: Universal Access, Universal Appeal,” Svetlana Kouznetsova, who is deaf, shared video (this example was shown initially uncaptioned and without sound − try the experience for yourself) to help her mostly hearing audience better understand the online experience of non-accessible video content for deaf and hard of hearing users. She went on to note benefits of ensuring that video and audio content is accessible goes beyond the not-insignificant benefit of reaching the 642 million deaf users in the world. For example, captioning also aids English as a Second Language (ESL) users.
Another consideration is that one of the biggest beneficiaries of captioned content is search engines who use this information to locate and catalog data. The result is increased success of content overall. She cited that only 66% of videos without subtitles are watched, while 91% with captions are watched, a 38% increase. This is just one way that accessibility provides economic value, one of three approaches to accessibility that Kouznetsova shared along with  thoughts about the effectiveness of each:

  • Medical: Medical approaches to people with special needs it to try to “fix” people. Of course, that isn’t always possible.
  • Social: Legislating accessibility requires a compliance checkbox on some projects, but a lot of people do not truly understand the needs. Ultimately, it’s much better to have empathy and awareness than compliance in the content we post.
  • Economic: People with disabilities represent a $1 trillion market in US, “twice the spending power of teenagers.” That market value jumps to $4 trillion for the world, “the size of the China market.”

That market jumps considerably when considering a global population of 2 billion people with all kinds of special needs (this goes beyond disabilities) represent an $8 trillion market. Kouznetsova favors this economic approach.
When considering providing transcription, truly equal experiences means providing verbatim text, not a summary. Captioning and transcription options on the web include CastingWords, Captioning Key, Amara, and even YouTube.
The final session I attended on accessibility was the panel “Future of Accessibility” with Catharine McNally,
Sharron Rush, and special guest Guido Corona. Each panelist shared how they became interested in solving the unique design challenges of accessibility. Sharron was inspired when she watched technology transform the world and realized that it could really make a difference for special needs users.
Catharine, who is deaf, shared the story about being given a 50-page transcript when she requested an accessible alternative to a museum audio tour. She described how she went home that night and created a video tour that she shared with the museum and even hearing users found more helpful.
Guido, who is blind, commented on how the largest companies are recognizing the importance of accessible design and building that into their products from the start, referencing examples such as accessibility infrastructure of Google’s Android platform and the fact that 77% of blind cell phone users have an iPhone because accessibility is integral.
When asked to list things that they felt would make the biggest difference in accessibility, the panelist offered the following:

  • Catharine:  Contrast, captioning on a video, keyboard accessibility
  • Guido: Keyboard support is paramount, be mindful of tab order, outline of document should be accessible (H1, skip domain, etc.)
  • Sharron: Empathy!

The importance of empathy was reiterated throughout all sessions. The most powerful part of each presentation was the personal stories shared. I cannot in this blog post do justice to those stories. However, all of these sessions were recorded, and I hope that you will watch them when they are posted to the Big Design website at some point in the future. In the meantime, learn about the needs of all audiences you serve, include special needs in your personas and educate your team, read the stories of special needs users, look for opportunities to experience the world from the perspective of a special need (turn off sound on a video or experience different types of vision loss). It will change the way you think and design.
It’s a change of thinking that’s overdue across all industries. The topic of accessible design has been covered for many years, but accessibility is still considered optional by many designers and organizations. I think that is because there has been a cultural emphasis on how to comply and understanding regulation. Companies not legally required to comply too often dismiss accessibility as an optional development cost, without understanding the cost they incur and the opportunities they lose by not engaging all users. It’s time for us as designers to cultivate and encourage compassion over compliance and make accessibility an essential part of our good designs.
Correction: The estimated $1 trillion market value in the economic approach to accessibility represents all people with disabilities, not only deaf people as previously written. I am grateful to the presenter for providing this correction.

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Karen Bachmann

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